Those are the opening lines of a piece I’m working on as I process some events of my life. I will finish that piece and tell those parts of my story at some point (maybe), but for today I’m pausing to “sit with my feelings” (as my counselor often advises me to do). The main feeling I’m sitting with here is anger. Anger at that one concept – willful ignorance. Here’s what I wrote next in the other piece:
As I was writing, I got bogged down researching willful ignorance and its many comrades – willful blindness, plausible deniability, turning a blind eye, the ostrich effect, knowledge avoidance, confirmation bias, self-deception, delusion, wishful thinking, cognitive dissonance, and more. I even delved into epistemic akrasia, which is a weakness of will that causes one to act against their own better judgement. It’s a phrase often used in relation to addiction.
Willful ignorance is a “decision in bad faith to avoid becoming informed about something so as to avoid having to make undesirable decisions that such information might prompt.”
It has been further explained as “the willful decision not to know, as opposed to the inability to access information or disinterest in the question. Deliberate ignorance can result from inaction, that is, not searching for diagnostic information, or from action, such as refusing information that someone else offers.”
Besides my tendency to get side-tracked in research anyway, in this case I now see I was looking to understand how someone could rationalize turning a blind eye to something as horrible as molestation of a child. Again, I was trying to “get it.” And again, I cannot. After days of study, here I am back to being angry at that cursed phenomenon – willful ignorance.
What I do get is that we all need defense mechanisms. We need to protect our psyches (our conscious and unconscious minds). The situations that make us resort to willful ignorance are personal and of high impact on us and our relationships. They often hit at the very core of our identity even.
Going back to my own history, why did I spend so much time trying to “get it” (and not just in this latest round of pondering, but often throughout the years)? The very factors that led my should-be protectors to choose not to see the evidence right in front of them and not to investigate the matter were also at play to keep me from trying to work through my own experiences. These were people I loved. I was taught to respect them. It brought me no joy to find fault in them. And the questions in the back of my mind were certainly at play. Would I help or hurt the broader community by exposing the truth? How would my life change if I could no longer believe they loved me or cared for me? Would I, could I, even function in that community any longer?
Pulling our own blinders off can put us at odds with people we have felt a sense of belonging to, and even put us at odds with who we envisioned ourselves to be. All of this is disconcerting and can make us feel untethered.
I can see why some argue that to avoid such “knowing” is sometimes a rational response specifically because it helps us maintain hope and gives us autonomy to decide what we will and will not allow into our cognizance at a given time. Where I take issue with this is when protecting our own psyche comes at the expense of someone else’s well-being.
That said, I must insert some clarification here because the idea of “protecting the well-being of others” is often the reason some hesitate to expose those who are doing wrong. And indeed, some even preach that it is inappropriate to do so. The arguments may sound like this: You’re hurting a good man’s reputation. You may cause people to lose their faith. You’ll distract from all the good the organization (or church, or political party) is doing.
So, to be clear, I’m not advocating risking one’s own mental health to enable bad behavior, appeal to a manipulator, pacify a narcissist, protect predators, or engage in other such unhealthy relational dynamics. What I am suggesting is that some circumstances require us to fight against willful ignorance and its many comrades with all our might. It’s precisely because these circumstances have such impact on us and the potential to bring harm to others that we bear a great responsibility to seek the truth and not hide from it.
In law, the phenomenon of avoiding truth is called “willful blindness.”
A person can be found guilty of a crime if there was information they could have known but intentionally chose not to know so they could escape culpability. An example would be a drug smuggler who never looked in the package they were delivering. In court cases involving willful blindness, juries are given the “ostrich instruction” to validate that “deliberate ignorance and positive knowledge are equally culpable . . . one ‘knows’ facts of which he is less than absolutely certain. To act ‘knowingly’, therefore, is not necessarily to act only with positive knowledge, but also to act with awareness of the high probability of the fact in question.”
In Margaret Heffernan’s powerful TED Talk on the dangers of willful blindness, she gave examples of how it can harm families, corporations, religious institutions, whole communities, and even nations. She cited additional reasons people choose willful blindness, such as fear of retaliation or a sense of futility (nothing will ever change, so why bother?). Elsewhere, she is quoted as saying, “Nations, institutions, individuals can all be blinded by love, by the need to believe themselves good and worthy and valued. We simply could not function if we believed ourselves to be otherwise. But when we are blind to the flaws and failings of what we love, we aren’t effective either . . . We make ourselves powerless when we pretend we don’t know. That’s the paradox of blindness: We think it will make us safe even as it puts us in danger.”
In the TED Talk, Heffernan shared examples of people who dared to dig further, acquire knowledge, and expose things others chose not to see. Such people, “recognize that, yes, this is going to be an argument, and yes, I’m going to have a lot of rows with my neighbors and my colleagues and my friends, but . . . I can collaborate with my opponents to become better at what I do.” She says, “These are people of immense persistence, incredible patience, and an absolute determination not to be blind and not to be silent.”
As much as willful ignorance has the power to harm, breaking its hold has the power to heal and transform.
To begin the process, Heffernan suggests asking yourself these questions:
What could I know, should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing here?
As I’ve thought about willful ignorance and its ramifications, I’m convinced that working to overcome it is key to addressing many of the destructive dynamics playing out in our society. Following Heffernan’s lead, I want to spend the rest of our time here asking some questions that might help us see where we may be using willful ignorance as a defense mechanism.
If you don’t think you need to do this exercise, let me challenge that thought with a few humbling insights my recent reflections on my own story have brought me. At some point I realized I was more willing to say one person who allowed harm to come to me was being willfully ignorant, more willing to attribute a level of neglect to them, than I was regarding another who was also supposed to have protected me. They both had equal access to the information. I’m still asking myself why that is the case and whether I am correct in making the distinction between them. Why am I not holding them equally culpable? I have a sneaky suspicion it is because I value the relationship of the one more than the other. To attribute willful ignorance to them will hurt that relationship, and that’s why I’m not ready to go there in my thinking.
It is not easy to address our own bias and inconsistent thinking, which leads me to our first question:
Might you be willfully ignorant of your willful ignorance?
Okay, that one is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do think it’s a good starting point to admit that this is possible. There are times we simply don’t care to know what we might be missing. In our current societal state of mind, this may be rooted in anger and sound something like this: I don’t care to investigate this any further because it’s not worth my time to become knowledgeable about the arguments of people I think are just stupid and hateful.
Let’s move on to more specific areas of contemplation.
Where might willful ignorance be playing out for you?
- Other personal relationships?
Keep those various life settings in mind as you continue to think on the following questions.
What might willful ignorance be protecting?
- Your heart? – You can’t bear the thought of whatever it is you’re refusing to know being true, or that your relationships will be challenged? Other heart issues like hurts or sensitivities?
- Your ego? – You don’t want to admit you’re wrong or perhaps that you’re culpable for harm that has come to others, or that you’ve been gullible?
- Your mind? – You can’t possibly imagine someone you’ve deemed inferior or an enemy being even partially right?
- Your sense of being, or purpose, or belonging? – You don’t want to face whatever changes you might have to make if you learn you’re wrong in your assessment of a situation?
- Your security? – You’re afraid of retaliation or losing your job if you speak out?
Who might be harmed by your willful ignorance?
- Is there someone you should be protecting but aren’t?
- Do you disregard accusations of harm?
- When someone you love or your favorite celebrity, pastor, or politician is accused of something wrong, do you immediately jump to their defense? Or are you willing to ask the tough question, “What am I missing here?” . . . and then do the hard work to seek knowledge on the matter?
- We so do not want to believe the people we’ve held in high esteem could be predators, could be dishonest, could be manipulating us. But conversely, do you find it easier to believe such accusations if the person being accused is “on the other side” or “in the enemy camp”?
- Is your approach to accusations the same no matter which “side” the accused is on?
- Relatedly, do you seek knowledge from multiple and varied sources on both sides of whatever issue is being addressed?
- Or are your sources one-sided? Are you prone to confirmation bias – only seeking to gain knowledge that confirms what you already believe?
- Are you ignoring the pain someone is expressing? Brushing them off? Even if you become more informed and find you still disagree with them, could at least giving credence to their perspective or their story help the relational dynamic?
- Have you taken the time to hear personal stories of people with whom you disagree? Not just their arguments, but the experiences they’ve had which might have led to their beliefs?
- Is there someone you are not only unwilling to hear their argument, but are willing to demean them because they do not agree with you?
- Do insults readily roll off your tongue either to their face or when in conversations with others about them?
- Do the people you chat with and listen to (your information sources) spew hatred? Do you ever step away from those voices to see if they have hardened your heart?
It is a challenge to identify whether other people are purposefully turning a blind eye to information they could and should know, and even more so to recognize our own areas of willful ignorance. It’s challenging because of the mental and emotional tolls involved. Then there are the relational and identity components that gnaw at our psyche during the processing. And even more difficult to explain, let alone deal with, is the intermingling of analyzing someone else’s culpability while also being open to our own. Just writing all that makes me discombobulated – not an uncommon feeling lately.
Then, I went and added the layer of not only thinking about my own life events, but to further application in our broader society. And, of course, I’ve found the discombobulation carries over, especially in today’s environment where many people’s emotions are running at full throttle.
So, is it worth it? Well, if I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be putting this post out there (especially, again, in our current environment where any challenge to people’s belief systems is met with such backlash). But it is worth all of this because the potential for harm when we keep the blinders on is serious.
One thing I’ve kept in mind in all my processing is how people (including myself) do reveal their tendency towards “deliberate not-knowing.” I became more confident in labeling the actions of my “caregivers” as willful blindness (yes, I used the legal term here because I think it is that egregious) when I realized they were often speaking out of both sides of their mouths.
For example, one minute they claimed not to have any knowledge of the predator’s proclivities, but the next they explained away that when they found out he had “been handsy” with one of their own they “had a talk with him.” Their point B, contradicted their point A.
How often are we seeing this kind of contradictory language from the political and religious leaders who are coercing us into an “us against them” mentality? It might sound like this:
- My people did not do that, it was those people over there . . . but when my people did do that, it was because they were fighting for the good.
- We are standing up for Christian values, but Jesus was wrong on this one point.
- I won’t acknowledge that rioting was bad for my people because your people’s rioting was worse.
- It’s not right for you fascists to call people fascists.
- This person who potentially mishandled classified government information MUST be investigated! But not this one.
Are you willing to look for these red flags, this kind of double-mindedness, and call it out no matter who is doing it?
I leave you with one final question. Do you readily accept such duplicity without question? That might be one of the biggest tell-tale signs of your own willful ignorance.
I know that is a harsh statement and may seem uncaring. I almost took it out.
I am convinced, however, these are times that call for all of us to face the realities before us with boldness and hold each other accountable to better behavior.
It’s a time to call out willful ignorance and the harm it is doing.
 Gigerenzer, G., & Garcia-Retamero, R. (2017). Cassandra’s regret: The psychology of not wanting to know. Psychological Review, 124(2), 179–196. https://doi.org/10.1037/rev0000055 (https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/rev-rev0000055.pdf)
 Arfini, S., & Magnani, L. (2021). Embodied Irrationality? Knowledge Avoidance, Willful Ignorance, and the Paradox of Autonomy. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.769591
 Gemmell, K. (2020, April 11). Willful Blindness | Simons Law Office | MA Criminal Defense Attorneys. Boston MA Criminal Defense Attorneys | Simons Law Office. https://www.jbsimonslaw.com/willful-blindness/
 Popova, M. (2017, October 6). Why We Ignore the Obvious: The Psychology of Willful Blindness. The Marginalian. https://www.themarginalian.org/2014/08/27/willful-blindness-margaret-heffernan/